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Gulf Coast under Lili watch

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    October 2, 2002

    HAVANA -- Hurricane Lili strengthened as it roared across western Cuba and into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, forcing thousands from their homes on the island before taking aim at the U.S. Gulf Coast.

    Residents in south Louisiana faced their second evacuation in a week as Lili steadily gained strength and speed as it headed their way. "We're probably going to be evacuating some time (Wednesday) morning," said Ray Santiny, council member from the Louisiana barrier island of Grand Isle.

    Florida appears to be safe from a direct hit by Lili, which was upgraded to a Category 2 hurricane when its winds increased to nearly 100 mph as it whipped across Cuba on Tuesday afternoon. No casualties were reported in Cuba, but the storm earlier killed seven people in Jamaica and St. Vincent.

    A hurricane watch was declared for the northern U.S. Gulf Coast in Texas to the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, meaning hurricane conditions were possible within 36 hours. A tropical storm watch was in effect from the Mississippi River to Pascagoula, Miss.

    The National Hurricane Center in Miami said some squalls with gusts to tropical storm force could occur over the lower Florida Keys overnight.

    "By the time the storm gets to the United States, it will be stronger and it will pack a bigger storm surge," said Martin Nelson, lead forecaster at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

    In Cuba, flooding, downed trees and roofs ripped off homes was reported.

    State television Tuesday afternoon showed images of high winds whipping the leaves of towering palms on the small Isle of Youth, south of the main island.

    "The hurricane is not done with the Isle of Youth and it is not done with Pinar del Rio," Col. Astul Castellanos of Cuba's civil defense service said.

    At 11 p.m., the eye of the storm had cleared Cuba and was in the Gulf of Mexico, about 135 miles north-northeast of the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and about 520 miles south-south-east of New Orleans at latitude 23.3 N, longitude 86.3 W.

    Lili, the fourth hurricane of the Atlantic season, was moving northwest about 16 mph and its wind speeds had increased slightly, to 105 mph.

    It could strike the Gulf Coast areas of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi by Thursday or Friday, Nelson said.

    Hurricane force winds extended 40 miles and tropical storm force winds 175 miles.

    In New Orleans, authorities were discussing possible evacuation plans while coastal residents boarded up and sandbagged homes, cleaned up debris and stocked up on food and storm supplies.

    Before Lili struck western Cuba, fishermen hurried to port to secure their vessels. Officials said nearly 30,000 people fled to government shelters and more than 100,000 took refuge with friends and family members in safer areas.

    Some companies were evacuating employees in the Gulf of Mexico, which was battered last week by Tropical Storm Isidore.

    Mexicans also were abandoning homes in the northeastern Yucatan peninsula, where Lili's heavy rains were expected Tuesday. Isidore damaged 95,000 homes there. The Yucatan coast from Cozumel to Progreso was under a tropical storm watch.

    Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Kyle remained virtually in the same place but sent winds gusting over the mid Atlantic British island of Bermuda, which posted a tropical storm watch.

    At 11 p.m. Tuesday, Kyle's winds were nearly 45 mph and it was about 260 miles south-southwest of Bermuda at latitude 28.5 N, longitude 67.5 W.

    Shuttle launch delayed

    CAPE CANAVERAL -- NASA's first shuttle launch in four months was postponed Tuesday because of Hurricane Lili.

    The space agency did not want to take a chance of launching Atlantis today, only to have the hurricane bear down on Houston, home to Mission Control. NASA aims for a liftoff no earlier than Thursday.

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